A court in Shanghai has handed a suspended jail term and a fine to a developer who wrote software enabling people to get around the complex system of filters, blocks, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, RFA has learned.
The defendant, identified only by his surname Dai, was handed a three-year suspended prison sentence and fined 10,000 yuan by the Bao'an District People's Court in Shanghai after he set up a website to sell his virtual private network, or VPN, service.
Dai had hosted the service on multiple overseas servers, which enabled Chinese users to mask their IP addresses when going online and to get around the Great Firewall and view content from overseas, according to the China Courts Daily newspaper.
Dai was initially detained on Oct. 10, 2017. The court found that he had sold his VPN service to "several hundred people," the paper said.
He was found guilty of "illegal use of a computer program and tools to a serious extent" and "invasion and taking illegal control of a computer system, software, and tools," it said.
An online activist from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong who gave only his surname Hu said VPNs used to be the tool of choice for residents of mainland China wanting to view overseas content.
"The mainland Chinese internet is more like a local area network, in which you can only see what the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party allows you to see," Hu said.
"The only way to expand your horizons, or to use international sites like Facebook and Twitter, is to use a VPN," he said.
"The Chinese Communist Party has forbidden internet users from seeing any content that isn't in their favor," Hu said. "That's why we have seen an all-out and ever-widening battle against any form of software that gets around the Great Firewall."
'An illegal business'
In December 2017, the Pingnan County People's Court in the southwestern region of Guangxi jailed Wu Xiangyang for five years and six months for "running an illegal business" after he set up his own VPN, selling its services via the auction site Taobao and his own website.
China announced in January that it would begin blocking overseas providers of virtual private networks (VPN) used to circumvent its Great Firewall of government censorship at the end of March, official media reported.
Under the new rules, VPN operators must be licensed by the government, although unlicensed VPN service providers like Wu and Dai were targeted by the authorities before that date.
Last March, authorities in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai formally arrested prominent anti-censorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua on subversion charges after holding him for six months under residential surveillance.
Zhen, 32, who is also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, was the executive editor of anti-censorship website Across the Great Firewall, www.atgfw.org, an overseas-registered site offering information about censorship, and circumvention tools for accessing the internet beyond China’s borders.
He was detained when he went to bring money to detained activists after taking part in a memorial event marking the death of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo last July.
No letup in crackdown
In September 2017, a Guangdong court handed a nine-month jail term to Deng Jiewei after he allegedly set up a website in October 2015 to sell software helping users to scale the Great Firewall.
An online writer surnamed Li said the crackdown on anyone who evades government censorship hasn't let up in two years.
"There has been no reversal of this policy for the past two years, and that has had a huge, negative impact on economic development, and on people's daily lives," Li said.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice calling for the investigation and punishment of "unlicensed operations and those exceeding their remit," "sub-leasing and other illegal acts," in the industry.
The rules explicitly forbid the use of self-built or leased private lines and proxy servers without permission from the telecommunications department.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.